Water: The Silent Weapon

By Alyssa Nagrath

Not many people know this but for more than half of the last century, approximately 40% of civil conflicts have been connected to natural resources. Although it's not always the primary cause of a complex conflict, the hoarding of resources serves as sustenance for violence, trafficking, and exploitation. More importantly, trade-in natural resources themselves can fund armed groups guilty of war crimes and humanitarian violations. 

Unfortunately, the number of resource-related conflicts has only grown quantifiably in recent years, and the damage associated with these conflicts have escalated in intensity. PaulCollier, an expert on the economics of civil war estimated that close to fifty armed conflicts at the turn of the 21st century had a strong link to water and other resource exploitation, in which either licit or illicit exploitation helped to trigger, intensify or sustain violence. 

One extremely drastic manifestation of such resource exploitation is the “weaponization of water” i.e., the use of water – from its natural sources, usually not designated to anyone in particular – as a means of intimidating or harming others. This isn't only restricted to water but also includes the relationship between other resources, such as petroleum, and the viability of water. For instance, resources like rivers can be used as currency or for starving out segments of populations. Others, such as oceans or bays, can be oil-rich and thus can be leveraged for control.

To fully understand the magnitude of the implications of such water weaponization, I want you to think about the aftermath of most natural disasters - social, environmental, economic and humanitarian impacts - every single one of these is a consequence of a human controlled erosion of water resources. Isn’t it baffling to think that a seemingly unnoticed activity induced by a few careless and greedy individuals can have such a widespread influence?

The total discharge of the 139 largest river systems in the northern third of the world has been adversely affected by river channel fragmentation caused by dams, reservoirs, inter-basin diversions and irrigation (all human induced activities). This fragmentation has profoundly affected biological populations over a substantial area of the world. Wetlands have been destroyed and threats to already vulnerable species have increased. Major rivers around the world are so overexploited that no water reaches the sea for much of the year. Both the Nile and the Colorado rivers seldom discharge freshwater into the sea.Water diverted from Central Asian rivers for irrigation has caused the Aral Seato lose 80% of its volume since 1960. Likewise, more than 60% of the world’s rivers have been fragmented by dams, which can interrupt the natural flows of waterways and disrupt the movement of sediment. This increases the risk of floods and hampers navigation. 

Shockingly, water wars, and the resources that come with it have been used to fund terrorist cells across theMiddle East such as the Islamic state. To put it simply, the chain of events that is seen in such drastic cases is a vicious cycle: the lack of water contributes to political instability and violent conflict in the first place.The conflict can break out over the lack of water itself, or a malignant actor can manipulate the water supply in such a way as to turn it into a weapon for use in an unrelated conflict, effectively “weaponizing” the water. This wastage of water further exacerbates the water scarce situation as water is misused and the cycle goes on. In the Syrian Civil war, a major tactical imperative for IS has been to control areas by controlling water systems. In 2016, a major water tank in Maskanah that supplied water to the capital city of Aleppo was taken under siege by ISIS. In retaliation anti-ISIS jets bombed the area thus destroying the supply of water which has still only partially returned even in 2021. Even the Syrian government has partaken in similar activities: according to the Atlantic Council, “in December 2016, theSyrian Government targeted the Ein-el-Fijeh water facility of Wadi barada and cut off the water supply to Damascus, leading to internal displacement.”  Furthermore, according to the UN, “5.5million people in Damascus and 1.8 million people in Aleppo were deprived of access to safe water due to damage to water supply networks.” Outbreaks of waterborne diseases caused by contamination of water, shortage of water, soil erosion, and so on are just some of the ripple effects that exacerbated the ongoing water crisis.  Even small amounts of water diversion left river basins vulnerable to drought in times of low rainfall.

It is important to note that going back in history, there have been a multitude of instances of water’s use as a weapon in conflicts that have started for reasons not related to water scarcity itself. For instance, the Dutch opened their dikes in order to stop advancing French forces in theThird Franco-Dutch War, and during the Korean conflict, U.S. strategy involved attacking dams in North Korea.

The Syria and Iraq region has seen some of the earliest recorded, if not the most frequent, history of water’s use as a weapon. The territory ofSyria and Iraq constitute part of the ancient Kingdom of Mesopotamia. The earliest recorded conflict over water in this region was over 4500 years ago, when a dispute over access to irrigation water led King Urlama of the city-state of Lagash to cut off the water supply of the neighbouring city of Umma.

In more complex cases, economic factors can contribute to economic instability. I read a prediction made by the water peace and security partnership (a tool to warn against potential water-related conflicts and gauge the sensitivity of countries to such conflicts) that Iran was projected to have water-related conflicts in October2019 through September 2020, largely due to unfavourable economic factors.Incidentally, this was also the period wherein the U.S. imposed sanctions onIran as per the Iran nuclear deal ; inflation was under 10% in 2017, but shot up to over 30% in 2018 when US sanctions were imposed. Iran’sGDP growth rate increased to 11.8% following the temporary lifting of these sanctions. This temporarily suppressed extreme economic factors that were supposed to be responsible for the aforementioned conflicts. Although this connection has not been corroborated by official organisations or governments, I felt it is a simultaneous occurrence of events that is definitely some food for thought.

The weaponization of water is a very niche issue in so far as it is an orphan of multiple worlds: environmental, economic, and international security, none of which have readily adopted the issue as their own to deal with. Conflicts are often not analysed properly, overlooked or not reported at all. Thus although this topic has been discussed in a series of UN conferences from 1975 to 2018, clearly it has not received due attention as is apparent by how it continues to ravage societies around the world while most outsiders remain unaware of the existence of this problem. It is alarming to see that environmental data points to the possibility of water related conflicts in countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and soon,  to name a few.  The human population needs to do some serious self reflection and understand that water was not a scarce resource until we made it out to be. All the everyday activities that we endorse to save water are meaningless until and unless we address these larger problems that go unnoticed by most except those affected by them.